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Canada's 'colourblind' coronavirus data could leave officials blind to racial inequities

Last Updated Apr 8, 2020 at 8:50 am PDT

FILE - In this March 11, 2020 file photo, a technician prepares COVID-19 coronavirus patient samples for testing at a laboratory in New York's Long Island. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/John Minchillo

Ethnic and racial data related to COVID-19 cases unavailable

Evidence suggest black and Indigenous people in Canada disproportionate affected by virus

Racial data must be collected with a purpose, researcher says

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Black Canadians are almost certainly getting sick and dying from the coronavirus at a disproportionate rate – but without the data to quantify the problem, it cannot be properly addressed, some experts and advocates say.

Canada is “operating in the blind,” according to June Francis, director of Simon Fraser University’s Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement.

B.C. and the federal government have not released ethnic or racial data related to COVID-19.

‘Colourblind’ data could leave inequities unaddressed

“Black people are likely to face the very worst outcomes of this crisis, and without having the data, it’s hard for public policy to respond in specific ways to address the needs of particularly vulnerable populations,” said Francis, who is also co-chair of Hogan’s Alley Society, a non-profit working to revitalize the former hub of Vancouver’s black community in the Strathcona neighbourhood.

She said Canadians of African descent are at higher risk of contracting and dying from COVID-19 for a multitude of reasons: Higher rates of poverty correlated with crowded housing and an inability to stay home from work; over-representation in front-line work, including delivery, retail and in care homes; higher rates of underlying health conditions such as diabetes; and distrust of medical authorities based on previous experiences of racism.

Where data exists in the U.S., African Americans have been shown to be contracting and dying of COVID-19 at higher rates than the general population. A quarter of Milwaukee County’s population is black but half the sick and 81 per cent of the dead have been African American, according to Pro Publica, which reported similarly disproportionate rates elsewhere in the country.

FILE – In this illustration provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in January 2020 shows the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). THE CANADIAN PRESS/ AP-CDC via AP, File

Francis said she suspects the numbers are similar in Canada for both black and Indigenous people, but the lack of information from health officials make it impossible to prove.

RELATED: Leaders detail concerns about COVID-19 impacts on Indigenous populations

She said the lack of demographic data is indicative of a common but misguided idea that Canadians and Canadian society are “colourblind” – blind to race and therefore not racist.

“The systems that we are operating in are not colourblind. They operate to disadvantage us. When you do not acknowledge that, when you decide that it doesn’t exist, then it cannot be addressed,” Francis said.

“It doesn’t go away just because you wish it away.”

Francis said many Canadians are well-intentioned but nevertheless unconsciously perpetuate systemic racism. If they are confronted with hard numbers that lay bare their society’s inequities, they are more likely to confront their implicit biases, she said.

“I have a feeling … that when we see the data, we would respond in appropriate ways to really help achieve this colourblind society that we all seek.”

‘Just collecting data for no reason isn’t helpful’

But simply collecting and publishing such data should not be considered an end in and of itself, according to Farah Shroff, a professor at the UBC’s school of population and public health.

“I have been a researcher who works from a feminist, anti-racism perspective for a few decades and I’m not necessarily somebody who is an advocate for more race-based data,” she said.

The U.S. has some of the most robust and sophisticated demographic data related to HIV and other diseases and yet that country’s systemic inequities remain deeply ingrained, according to Shroff.

Racial data should only be collected if it’s going to be used for programs and research specifically designed to address racism, Shroff said.

“Just collecting data for no reason isn’t helpful,” she said.

FILE – The B.C. Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver. (Greg Harper, BT Vancouver photo)

In fact, she said, data showing one group as disproportionately affected by the pandemic can be harmful if presented without context.

“They will be seen as the vectors of disease,” she said. “We just have to be careful with how these data are used.”

Shroff said there are many, complex ways society should address the inequities of this and other health crises – but with or without the hard data, she has no doubt COVID-19 is “not an equal-opportunity disease.”

“It’s not going to affect people equitably because almost no disease does. Diseases often fall in the pattern of money and power. So those with money and power typically manage to stay healthy,” she said.

Officials don’t address question of race and COVID-19

Both B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, and Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, have been asked about demographic data this week, but neither directly addressed race.

On Monday, Henry said she is monitoring how the pandemic is affecting the province along socioeconomic lines, but said, “I don’t have the data yet.”

Tam said on Tuesday the federal government is collecting “detailed” demographic data, which is available online. But the government’s epidemiological summary page only included information about patients’ age and sex as of Tuesday afternoon.

NEWS 1130 asked both the provincial and federal government about their policies and practices around collecting and sharing demographic case data about COVID-19. Neither responded by Tuesday afternoon.